Bus driver shortage caused by COVID-19 disrupts service at several Mat-Su schools

children playing on a playground
Students play during recess at Dena’ina Elementary School in Wasilla in September. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Several scheduled bus routes across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District were canceled Monday, as the district learned its busing contractor did not have enough drivers to complete the routes due to a COVID-19 outbreak. That’s according to an email sent to families Sunday night. 

The following schools were impacted: 

  • Palmer High School
  • Palmer Junior Middle School 
  • Sherrod Elementary 
  • Swanson Elementary  
  • Butte Elementary 
  • Sutton Elementary 
  • Academy Charter
  • Shuttles to/from Palmer to Valley Pathways

The email also said all remaining bus routes might experience delays. Schools remained open and all absences for students unable to attend in-person without bus service were excused, the email said.

District spokesperson Jillian Morrissey said in an email more cancellations will happen during the week. 

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First Student, the busing contractor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Mat-Su district is the largest in the state to start the school year with an optional mask policy, although it is not the only one. It is, however, one of the only large districts that does not require mask wearing on buses, despite a federal order requiring people to mask up on all public transportation. 

“At this time, we do not have a shift in mask wearing on buses, but our Health Advisory Team is monitoring the situation closely,” Morrissey said. 

Related: Mat-Su doctor: ‘Stand with me over a patient taking their last breaths’ 

Mat-Su Schools Superintendent Randy Trani has said the district is trying to thread a needle between what parents want and maintaining health and safety. 

A district poll of families and staff in June showed that most respondents were largely against mask wearing. But that was before the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spurred a new surge in coronavirus cases, and Trani said the district might conduct another survey soon to see if thoughts have changed. 

The district is treating each school as its own “community” so some schools may have mask mandates while others don’t.

Read more: Mat-Su superintendent says mask policy is a ‘balancing act.’ But not everyone is happy with it. 

At a state-sponsored forum last week Trani indicated that masks would likely be required at some schools. 

“When schools move to yellow, we will reinstitute masking,” Trani said. “And we anticipate that that’s going to happen quickly.”

Currently, all schools are operating in a green low risk category, but just four days into the school year the district is reporting 33 COVID cases across 16 schools, according to the district’s website.

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